A Tour of Magic and Mystery

In October, Doug Robinson, 61, perhaps the only pioneer from Yosemite's Golden Age who remains active, established, with Michael Thomas, 39, a 20-pitch alpine rock route on the southwest face of Mount Whitney (14,497 feet) in California's Sierra Nevada.

By Rock and Ice | December 1st, 2010

In October, Doug Robinson, 61, perhaps the only pioneer from Yosemite’s Golden Age who remains active, established, with Michael Thomas, 39, a 20-pitch alpine rock route on the southwest face of Mount Whitney (14,497 feet) in California’s Sierra Nevada.

Their route, Lost (IV 5.9), is the first known line on the massive face. Until now, climbing on Whitney had been limited to the East Face, home to towering granite monoliths such as the popular Keeler Needle.

Beginning at 8 a.m., Robinson and Thomas climbed nine pitches they had reconnoitered two years earlier, finding mostly 5.9 with some likely 5.10 on steep and delicate terrain. Climbing 11 more pitches into the night and under the glow of a full moon, the duo summited at 4 a.m. in a biting 30-mile-per-hour wind.

Robinson and Thomas said they had expected a half-dozen pitches of 5.6, but found the route surprisingly long, difficult and intricate.

“We mostly couldn’t tell,” says Robinson, “which of the ridges we saw in front of us connected to what we were on until we got there. [It was like] a magical mystery tour.”

The route, notes Robinson, is classic alpine, with sections of fourth-class that involve straddling knife-edge ridges and climbing up towers only to rap or downclimb the other sides.

In the early 1970s, Robinson, with fellow climbers Yvon Chouinard and Tom Frost, largely invented clean climbing by developing and popularizing the first usable nut, the Stopper. In 1973, Robinson propelled hammerless climbing into the spotlight by making, with Galen Rowell and Dennis Hennek, the first clean ascent of Half Dome’s Regular Route, a precedent-setting climb that made the cover of National Geographic. Robinson was also a founding member and first president of the American Mountain Guides Association, one of Outside magazine’s first writers and the producer of the best-selling Moving Over Stone instructional video. In the Sierra, where Robinson began climbing in 1958, perhaps his most notable achievement was the first ascent, in 1975, of Dark Star, a 30-pitch 5.10 on Temple Crag.

Whitney’s southwest side, home to Robinson’s latest Sierra addition, is a broad expanse of alpine granite defended by nearly infinite rows of saw-tooth ridges.

It’s difficult to understand why a full quarter of Mount Whitney remained unexplored, says Robinson. There are going to be six major lines, at least but you gotta walk two days to where [the face] is visible, and most climbers don’t hike.

Robinson also notes that there are literally thousands of unclimbed walls in the Sierra, but the pace of exploration has slowed to a trickle compared to the 1960s and 1970s.

Fashion, muses Robinson, has shifted to roadside crags and boulder gardens.

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